Antipuritans

The thing about the John Owen class I was least prepared for was the English history. English history may have been and may always be a tangled affair, the truth is I know very little about it. But as to the XVI and XVII Centuries, I now know more than I did last week. Does learning change one? I thought about it last night. As I sit (and for exercise go up and down the stairs quickly many times) here all day reading and thinking and trying to put things together and be legitimate, is it changing me to understand how these things came about? I think the answer is that it does.

Now I understand the puritans better. One of the chaps (I still have to remember the names—I’ve got a long way to go and only three weeks to finish), Collinson I think, starts with this interesting observation. If the term ‘puritan’ is, was (and probably ever shall be) opprobrious, hurled in the spirit of injury more often than not, then there have to have been antipuritans who hurled it. Isn’t that ingenious? So that frames a good starting question: what were the antipuritans about?

As you know, Henry VIII was not interested in the reform of the church, but Cromwell and Cranmer were. When the opportunity arose, they did what they could. Cromwell, we know, lost his life; the more politic Cranmer managed to survive Henry VIII—no mean feat, for all that his life was ended sooner than perhaps it would have had it been allowed to continue. Influence, meanwhile, was had on the young and most protestant King Edward VI. More reformed headway was made, and the Catholic cause was closer to doom. Do not forget the place of the monarch in all this as head of his realm and having none of the clergy in service to a foreign power: the Pope.

Queen Mary Stewart comes along and does a nice job getting the common people on board for the protestant side of things by her zealous Catholicism and darling Jesuits. It is kind of like Julian the Apostate doing the church a favor by trying to sow discord among its Arian clergy by allowing the banished orthodox clergy to return from the trials undergone for their convictions. If only he’d listened to the Arians, paganism might have lived on longer. When your most devoutly Catholic monarch–ever since there was an option–also acquires the epithet ‘bloody’ in the cause of her faith, don’t expect her religion to go unstained, especially after John Foxe gets ahold of the stories. And here perhaps is where she most contributes to the puritans: many of the prominent protestants had to flee and live in exile, and were exposed to the free practice of the reformation on the continent, and then returned with the zeal of that observed practice when Queen Mary went on to her reward.

Elizabeth I achieved a settlement, and James I keept it going. The settlement was a compromise: Calvinist doctrine—reformed orthodoxy—for the most part (that is the radical part), and liturgy pared down but with many unreformed elements (the conservative part granted where it would be most felt by the common people). The ones who are pleased about the doctrine (mostly) but want the practice to match it are the beginnings of puritanism. The reform achieved is a compromise, after all, which means that all parties are dissatisfied and will continue to pull in their several directions until it comes to war. The oddest thing about this all is that by the end of the XVII Century there were people looking at this Elizabethan/Jacobean church as a golden age, and arguing that this is what must be maintained: the balanced, even, reasonable, etc.

James stirred the pot. Of course, it is hard cheese on James. Think about it: when he gains the throne there are going to be eager persons wanting to urge him in their own direction; he has to steer his way between them, but that’s hardly going to win any faction over. Unlike James II, James I kept his throne, so there is something to be said for his political skills. The compromise has politicized the reform more than Henry VIII did—it seems to me—because if you are for it you are 100% with the king, and if you are not for it, you are . . . well, not 100% for the king, are you? James I was approached by the puritans and disappointed them. He also came out with some legislation about sports, which is ungodly for Sabbatarians, wanting to limit wanton frolic on the Lord’s day, but not enough. The puritans did want to be for the king, it is just they very much wanted the king to have a country that more resembled godly Geneva than merrie olde England (I don’t remember who said that, but it is clever).

Charles I later reissued this legislation about how after afternoon worship on a Sunday persons may dance and have maypoles and other activities which will enable them to be hardy for war (there is some really preposterous reasoning in the document). That was an act not entirely unlike raising his standard later at Nottingham: it intensified things, especially when his Archbishop Laud started pushing for the rigorous implementation of the practice side of the compromise and gained a reputation for being of the new and newly discredited Arminian proposal to reform reformed orthodox doctrine. (One of the things John Owen did while vice-chancellor of Oxford during the Protectorate was to promote a Laudian to be the first chair of Arabic, I learned in class, and that he also protected his tutor during that time, a Royalist. And, of course, since he was no Erastian or Presbyterian, he advocated toleration in the Restoration, and was quite Cromwellian in his view of religious toleration.) But by then there was a self-aware group of people being called puritans; 1567 is apparently the first instance of the term.

In the midst of that, beginning in the reign of Queen Elizabeth who fended the puritans off of Shakespeare, the antipuritans were those who resisted the rigor of piety sensed and eventually imposed on English society by those whose doctrine was for the most part the assumed doctrine of the Anglican church, who thought—rightly, right?—that doctrine and practice should match. The antipuritans wanted a relaxation of the social expectations the godly (now that nobody takes the epithet as disadvantageously biased-for, scholarship can use it freely) wanted to impose on all for the good of all and the glory of God. These were, among others, the jolly fellowes who wrote and acted in plays (see Bartholomew Fair by Ben Johnson, apparently), who wanted sport on the Lord’s day and ale feasts and the celebration of Christmas and the good cheer which from of old had meliorated the lives of Englishmen. They, in short, who called those who aimed to remove all this, and who for a time actually did, precisionists and puritans.

Reader, I do not know if this changes you, but it has changed me.

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